When Nice Guys Finish First

Recently, my critique group read Bone Gap by Laura Ruby. Not only did I sit there thinking that Ruby has a special talent for writing things in such a gorgeous way, (and in a truly creative and visceral sense), but I also fell in love with her characters. In particular, I was really taken by Finn. He’s a good kid. A nice kid. And here’s a YA genre spoiler alert: There are not a lot of nice guys out there. Sure, there are sexy romantic types. But most of the heroes are tough or dangerous or tortured or stuck up or filled with sleazy thoughts. And since I myself met my significant other at the age of eighteen—a kind, nice (but still totally sexy) boy—a guy whom I would go on to marry two years later (and am now celebrating 15 years together!!!), I thought I’d like to give a shout out to some of my favorite “nice guys” in YA lit. The Fault in Our Stars – August is special. No doubt, he’s grown up quickly with his dire cancer battle, but the way he relates to Hazel has us all bawling our eyes out at the end of the novel. My Life Next Door – Jase Garrett comes from a big family. But that makes him sensitive, responsible, and totally adorable as he and Samantha fall in love. He’s the kind of boy you just can’t stand for her to hurt. Out of the Easy – Ruta Sepetys always dazzles me with her writing, and this book, which takes place in 1950s New Orleans, is no different. I love the not-so-bad-boy Jesse, who lets us have our motorcycle fantasy while proving he’s really a gentleman under all that sex appeal. So, who are your favorite nice guys? Any YA heroes making your heart beat faster these days by being hot and polite? Because I’m all ears.... read more

Feeding the Monster in Your Story

Our writing group just completed a read through of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (get more thoughts here In this award-winning upper middle grade novel, a monster visits a boy in his dreams (or is it?) to deal with a profound problem. Whether a novel features real monsters (aka…the villain) or a conflict that functions as a monster to the protagonist, it’s important to understand some of the most complex monsters in literature, and how your own writing or reading group can benefit from understanding what drives them. Dracula – The sophisticated monster We all have enjoyed a good James Bond villain. No matter how evil, how sociopathic, there is always something just a little bit charming and erudite that makes this type of “monster” worthy of our heroic opponent. In children and young adult literature, this might qualify as the President Snow (Hunger Games) or other such villains who stay one step of the protagonist, forcing our hero to move out of his or her comfort zone and rise to a higher level. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – The misunderstood monster Some of the best villains are those for whom we feel a certain empathy. People in bad circumstances can either become better versions of themselves, or react to the unfair situation and let it eat away their soul. In Frankenstein, the monster is rejected by its maker and ostracized for its ugliness. This leads to violence and the murder of innocents. We abhor the monster, even as a sort of forced empathy grows from his struggle. A misunderstood monster who changes for the better might be thought of as Beast in Beauty and the Beast. An excellent YA spinoff for that particular story is Alex Finn’s Beastly. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde –The insidious monster Sometimes, you just really want a bad guy. An evil-to-the-bone, maniacal-laughing type of bad guy. Sure, in some cases it might feel a bit “Scooby Doo,” but when you want the audience to really hate someone, then bring on the full out, shameless, laugh-in-your-face-as-he-wields-an-ax bad dude. Timeless villains like Voldemort and Batman’s Joker seem to do the trick here. Sometimes we get a little bit of a melancholy backstory, but usually nothing so significant as to merit the actions of this type of brazen villain. Of course, these three aren’t the only types of successful villains. So next time you’re reading or working on a manuscript, spend some... read more

Falling in love (again) with anthropomorphism

One of the things I like best about the One and Only Ivan  was the animal perspective, as I’ve expressed in a previous blog. Each and every one of us grew up with children’s books that connected us to animals, either through anthropomorphism (quick vocab lesson: animals with human feelings) or through a child’s relationship with a pet or farm animal. Having worked with veterinarians and vet techs over the last couple years in the publishing biz, I realize that this connection never changes for them, and that for some of us, our humanity is connected and clarified through our relationships with animals and our conception of their feelings. Disney is one of the best purveyors of anthropomorphism. Movies like Bambi made certain I’ll never go hunting. Dumbo made me suspicious of circus animal treatment. Dozens of Disney sidekicks (Flounder, Abu, Pascal, Mushu, etc.) have me pondering what talking-animal sidekick might work best for my life. But of course, children’s literature is where it all started. Three favorite classics utilizing anthropomorphism include The Jungle Book, Charlotte’s Web, and Stuart Little. You’ve probably heard of them all (or at least watched the movies), but when you really start digging, anthropomorphism in kid lit isn’t quite as extensive as you might think beyond picture books. I think that’s why I really enjoyed Katherine Applegate’s One and Only Ivan, because it took me back to a place that included the “Bare Necessities” and “Zukerman’s Famous Pig.” It made me remember falling in love with a sweet, curious mouse named Stuart, one of my first encounters with magical realism. So, quiz-lover that I am, that only begged the question…which anthropomorphic character am I most like? Well, now we can all find out in the exclusive WWAT quiz on Buzzfeed! Good... read more

What’s so Peculiar? Nailing the “Novel Idea”

Recently, I had the misfortune to discover that my completed work-in-progress had some startling similarities to a recently released novel. Further digging proved that the similarities ended at the logline, but it was enough for me to put the project on hold. I threw up my hands, and for a few weeks, I allowed myself to feel greatly uninspired. Then, one day, I’m walking past my five-year-old’s stack of library books. He loves the shelf that features the bizarre and unusual, and when I looked at the cover of one, I almost fell over, a new idea struck me so fast. This time, I scoured Amazon, Goodreads, and the AR reading list for similar titles. At the end of it, I had a pretty big grin. My idea looked to be somewhat unique. But that begs the question: What exactly is a “fresh idea”? We see rehashed movies all the time, and we’ve come to expect regurgitations of our favorites. But editors in the book world, while wanting something intriguing and marketable, are always looking for something a little different. But what’s different? Well, here are a few ideas. Using a gimmick. No, this is not a dirty word. It’s great to be inspired by something—a prop, or a photo—when writing a book. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a perfect example of this. Ransom Riggs built his tale around his collection of creepy pictures. And that’s pretty intriguing by itself, much less the visual marketability. A fresh character in a novel world. Harry Potter has a lightening scar and discovers the incredible world of witchcraft and wizardry. Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen is a quiet huntress forced into a bizarre technological gladiator ring to fight for her life. Hazel and Gus from The Fault in our Stars (John Green) are kids with cancer, navigating the strange world of hospitals and unhappy endings. All three of these successful books and series might have had plots that shared similarities with other stories, but through expert world building and deep character development, they became something so much more. An imaginative retelling. A Court of Thorn & Roses (Sarah J. Maas) is a luscious fae-inspired retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Tiger Lily by (Jodi Lynn Anderson) takes a fresh look at the tale of Peter Pan. Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater) is like National Velvet or Seabiscuit, with an incredibly dark twist. Don’t lean too heavily on an idea that’s been there... read more

Magical Realism- what the heck is that?

Many of you writers, and some readers, will have heard the term “magical realism.” It has recently appeared with some frequency on the wish lists of agents and editors alike. It wasn’t but a few years ago when I thought, “What the heck is that?” I recently read a post by Bruce Holland Rogers that talked about how magical realism was a debased term (he explains it much better than I do here, so visit this post for a more in-depth discussion). However, I might defend writers by saying that without correctly defining the genre and providing examples, publishing professionals do themselves a disservice when writers make claims that don’t add up to real magical realism. So what is it, then? Well, now that you’ve backed me into a corner with that simple question, I might try to make the definition as simple as possible. Magical realism is the acceptance of magic in the real world. Actually, Katharina Hagena says it great in her Huffington Post article on the topic: “In a novel of magical realism, you’ll find elements of the fantastic which break or creep into an otherwise realistic world.” So what does that really mean? Are the Chronicles of Narnia magical realism? Not really. Magical realism takes into account the real world. The Earth we live upon. Not a fantasy one. How about Twilight? Well, you could say the novels expose something extraordinary in the real world, but the real world doesn’t really (or mostly) accept vampires exists, and that’s where we get down to the nitty gritty definition. Maybe the best way to explain is to present works considered magical realism. Think about Stuart Little. Here’s a talking mouse that gets adopted by a family. Nobody in the story seems to think this particularly strange. How about Scorpio Races? Sure it takes place in the past (Stiefvater is purposely vague on the exact year), but no one, not even an out-of-town American visitor, seems to think it unbelievable that these meat-eating horses emerge from the sea once a year and people race them. How about Harry Potter? Oooh, this might bear more discussion, because most Muggles don’t necessarily accept magic takes place. But the argument could be made for it being part of this category. In Bruce Holland Rogers’ post, he emphasizes that the value of magical realism is seeing the world through a different set of eyes. Maybe we could take that a little further... read more

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